Travel, Teach, Live in Asia
The flight over the Arabian Sea from Saudi Arabia was akin to riding on the back of a panicked goose who was alone in the dead of night in a overpowering storm. When one looked out the windows you could see the wings moving up and down. The jet buckled, lurched, plunged, and banged into air pockets, righting itself time and time again. The cabinets above our seats burst open littering their contents on the occupants below. I had never experienced turbulence like this before, nor have I experienced that degree of turbulence since. I was both mesmerized and awe struck by the flexibility of the wings.
When I deplaned I was intoxicated. When I attempted to buy some rupees I was upbraided by the clerk behind the window for entering his country in this condition. I apologized profusely and staggered out into the hot and humid night where I might catch a taxi cab. There were cabs lined up for miles waiting, I assumed, to pick up passengers. This was not the case. Gathered outside of the airport was an ugly mob. They carried clubs, empty bottles, rocks, and signs. I tried to figure out what was causing the uproar, and finally asked a porter.
“The cab drivers are on strike,” he replied.
Not all the drivers were on strike. There were some brave scabs who were cashing in on the misfortunes of the striking drivers. These scabs would wait outside, away from the crowd. A handful of police protected them. Then when a cab was needed a porter would signal, and the cab would come racing in at high speeds so as to frighten the strikers. It didn’t always work. If the cab driver wasn’t especially brutal, he would stop before the onslaught of strikers who would jump out into his path. Usually they would jump away at the last minute, but the driver could never be sure. And as he went through the crowd, he was pummeled with stones and bottles. The porter informed me that on one occasion the mob had broken through and rocked a cab over on its side and beaten the driver.
I watched several passengers get into cabs, lower themselves to the floorboards and then speed away through the mob. The porter hailed me a cab, and I ducked into the back seat. The driver revved up his engine, ground it into gear and sped off. I sat up watching how the mob in front of us closed in. As is my peculiar nature in stressful situations, I began to crack impromptu jokes and laugh. The driver turned for a brief second to look at me as if I were a madman, which perhaps I am, and I could see the terror on his face. His look alerted me to our real danger. The clubs smashed against the roof, a bottle broke against the window, and young boys jumped out in front of the cab, preying upon the driver’s humanitarian impulses not to hurt them.
The crowd surged up against the side of the cab. They tried to open the doors. I felt the cab being rocked from side to side. The driver was screaming with fear. I watched as he shoved the car into first gear and laid on the horn. He accelerated dangerously into the mass of bodies; they melted away from the cab. He picked up speed and soon we were cruising at forty miles an hour away from the airport.
My surge of protective adrenalin transformed itself into a case of post traumatic shakes.
As we continued down the road, I noticed a series of fires alongside of us. I thought they were markers indicating where the road was, for there were no street lamps, but as my eyes adjusted to the dark I could see families cooking meals by these flames. Every twenty feet was another fire with another family. The sides of the road looked like an ongoing campground. These people, I would later discover, were some of the thousands of street people who had left their villages because of the droughts that had rendered their farm lands useless. They had fled to the cities to work and beg for their survival. There was an entire subculture of barbers, bakers, and craftsmen living on the roads plying their trades. The campfires continued and became denser the nearer we came to the center of Bombay.
We arrived at the hotel, which was surrounded by a mass of traffic and people. I gave my driver a generous tip. His eyes glowed brightly in the dark. I think I gave him the equivalent of a couple of months pay. He thanked me profusely and gave me his card and asked that I call him the following morning if I needed a cab.
There was a panic going on in the air conditioned lobby of the Taj Majal Hotel. I thanked God that I had booked a reservation before leaving Al Khobar, and that I would soon be in my room taking a refreshing shower and sipping a cool drink. I waited in line and presented myself to the desk clerk. She checked her reservation list and looked puzzled.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “We have no reservation booked for you.”
I cursed the travel agency in Al Khobar. People pressed against me from behind, waiting impatiently for me to step aside. The clerk advised me to go to the customer relations desk and see if they might find me another room in another hotel. This I did, along with about fifty other people. The customer relations clerks tried very hard for about two hours, but there were no rooms left in Bombay because of an important psychologists’ convention. It was now well past midnight. People were camping out in the lobby. I decided to go to each desk clerk and ask each one if he or she knew of anyone who might rent me a room, possibly one of their family members. Each one gave the same reply: No, it was impossible. There weren’t any rooms at any price. I worked my way through the desk clerks for the second time and had reached the last one, a young lady. She listened to me, shook her head, as all the clerks had done, but suddenly she had a change of heart. She pulled a slip of paper she had been writing on from beneath the counter.
“I have just received a cancellation from the Presidential Hotel,” she said.
“I’ll take it,” I said eagerly.
“I will call and notify them you are coming.”
“You have been very kind to me,” I said, “What can I do to repay you?”
She thought about this for a moment.
“Pray for our people,” she replied.